The Secrets Act follows Pearl and Ellen, who are recruited to work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
Pearl is the youngest. A messenger at 16, she’s untidy, lively, bright, and half in love with the wrong boy, Richard. Ellen is a codebreaker. Reserved, analytical, and beautiful. She never expected to get close to a girl like Pearl — or fall for a chap like Dennis. But when tragedy strikes, their logical world is upended, with both friends caught in a spy plot that rocks the very heart of the war effort.
We chatted with Alison Weatherby on her thrilling YA mystery.
Did you watch The Imitation Game? Or was this book purely inspired by your visit to Bletchley Park?
I did watch The Imitation Game when it came out, but truthfully, I didn’t have the idea for this book until I went to the museum at Bletchley. When I learned at 75% of their wartime employees were young women and dug into the different types of work they did, I knew I had to write about this amazing place. These women were extraordinary.
Can you share with us a bit about your research process? Any fun tidbits? What did you like researching about the most – the clothes, the huts etc?
I absolutely loved researching this book! The historians at Bletchley were super helpful, I read a ton of books, and listened to a lot of audio interviews. The most amazing experience I had was visiting the Research Rooms at the Imperial War Museum. I spent a day reading original, handwritten diaries and letters of women who worked at Bletchley. It really helped round out my characters, as I was able to understand what they did for fun, how they talked, and what words they used during that time. While I loved that day at the IWM, I spent way too much time researching what people ate during WW2 – from rationing to restaurants to recipes. You’d never know it from the book, but I found that bit so interesting!
Also, this is not a question but can I just mention the Google easter egg when you search for Bletchley Park is pretty cool?!
I know! I love it.
If you were working at Bletchley Park, do you think you would be a messenger or a code breaker, or some other role entirely?
There are a lot of jobs at Bletchley I would NOT want to do. They sounded loud or uncomfortable or exhausting. It was not easy creating (and decoding) the ciphers I included in The Secrets Act, so I’d be a lousy cribster. Truthfully, I’d probably be better suited to work in archives — they kept records of everything — and used those archives to shed light on new communications they received. I’d be like a librarian of secret messages, which to a book/library nerd like me, seems kind of cool.
Espionage was of course a main concern for the operation in real life, and in The Secrets Act. If you discovered something fishy while working, do you think you would manage to not tell anyone (not even, say, your sister) or would you be dying inside?
I’d slowly lose the will to live if I had to keep a massive secret like that! I find it mind-boggling that the Bletchley workers kept what they did a secret for decades. How did they do that? I’m horrible with secrets and can’t imagine keeping such a huge part of my life from my parents, friends, or partner.
Ellen is portrayed as neurodivergent in The Secrets Act, and as it would not be diagnosed during that period, it was naturally never addressed in the book. Do you think even stories set in the modern world should take this subtle approach?
Ellen’s neurodivergence is a part of her and even though I couldn’t put a modern label on it because of the time period of the book, you see can see it in how she interacts with people and approaches situations. It would be the same if she lived in 2022 – her autism is who she is, part of her character – and it’s important that characters are drawn to reflect reality. I love reading modern books with neurodivergent characters because they mirror what we see today in our own lives – a diverse landscape of people.
The Secrets Act also addressed the struggles of LGBT+ people during that time. Why is it important to include this? Is it a nod to Alan Turing?
When I wrote the character of Richard and realized he was gay, I knew it would be important to address how awfully LGBT+ people were treated. I didn’t write Richard’s character as gay because of Alan Turing – it was just who Richard was, honestly – but I couldn’t have him in the story without acknowledging how horrible it was to be LGBT+ during that time in England.
Get your copy of The Secrets Act here.